I'm at the end of the second year of a phd in engineering. My project is going well: I'm involved in an international project and I submitted 6 journal papers and 5 conference papers.

The problem is the relationship with my main supervisor.

I have two supervisors. I'm working really well with my co-supervisor. He has always showed interest in my work and in me as a person. He provides me accurate revisions on papers, reports, oral presentations, and so on. At the same time, he leaves me free to direct my project as I prefer, as long as my work is coherent with the topic of my thesis and with the objectives of the project we are involved in.

Things are different with my main supervisor. He couldn't care less about my work. I hardly remember the last time he gave me any guidance or even corrected one of my papers. He requested I help other phd students and provide him with didactic material for courses.

I spent most of the first year helping another student, understanding that the work would be part of my thesis. At the end of the year my supervisor asked me not to inform the phd committee of my participation in that work, because it could damage the evaluation the student.

This year, something similar happened. One of his M.Sc students could not finish a job in collaboration with another professor. Now he wants me to finish that job, because he doesn't want to offend that professor. The problem is that he's not even in my research group, I don't have any experience with the subject and this is slowing down my work, as this job should be completed by the end of the year. My supervisor also gave me other extra work, telling me not to tell the other supervisor and not to add his name in my works.

The worst part came when my co-supervisor proposed me a postdoc position. My main advisor became arrogant, telling me not to f**k up things (litterally), that he's the boss and that if I want to go on working in research I have to stay with him.

I tried many, many times to talk to him, but his answers are always the same: "don't do s**t, remember who's the boss here".

Normally, I wouldn't ask advice from random people over the internet, but I really don't know what to do. Talking to him seems completely useless. Maybe I should talk to the other supervisor, but I'm not sure he would support me against a colleague. I'm afraid I could end up even more isolated.

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    In an ideal world, you would blow the whistle about your main supervisor at your institution's ombudsperson and do the right thing, not lending your name to clearly unethical procedures. In a realistic world, you probably keep your head down, do not signal any further rebellion to your main supervisor, write up as fast as you can and get out of their clutches, fast. Whether or not you postdoc with the other superviser depends on whether they have enough power. If not, go elsewhere, or your main supervisor (he has made it clear) will destroy your career. You need to get out of his reach, fast. Jun 9, 2018 at 19:34
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    You got the problem. The only certain thing is that I'm running away as soon as I get the degree. Not only for me, but also for the other phd students of my group. Some of them are even in a worst situation than mine, since he changed their topic many times. All for his silly pride: everytime he doesn't like some collaborator, he tries to change topic (did I already say that he wants to be the only boss?). Unfortunately, we are in a realistic world and I have to cope. I just hope that he won't do further harm
    – philll
    Jun 9, 2018 at 19:50
  • My question is: will it be a problem for future employement? Since for suure I'm not going to have his recommendation letter.
    – philll
    Jun 9, 2018 at 19:55
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    "don't do s**t, remember who's the boss here" — You are. Fire him.
    – JeffE
    Jun 9, 2018 at 20:35
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    @JeffE All good and well, I think OP needs advice as to how to handle the references? My advice is: network as much as you can at conferences, you may find a referee there. The second supervisor may also be happy to write you a letter even if you don't stay. Good luck! Jun 10, 2018 at 0:15

6 Answers 6


I was in a similar situation with my dissertation director. After trying to resolve things with him (he became increasingly hostile and abusive with each attempt), I got other professors involved, including the graduate ombudsperson. One professor - the department chair - did nothing and sided with my director - but the other faculty (the graduate director and my other committee members) stepped in and separated us, and one of them took over as my new dissertation director. After that, I went straight to Human Resources and filed a complaint against that professor, since no one in my department made any attempt to hold him accountable for his actions. I also reached out to the Dean's office when HR was initially unresponsive, which I think helped because they may have leaned on HR to pay attention to my case. The investigation was recently concluded and apparently they "took actions against him," (a slap on the wrist, I'm assuming. But at least he has a record now).

Personally, as horrible as my experience was and as painful of a battle it was (from which I still haven't recovered), I have no regrets about standing up to that professor, making as much noise as possible in my department and to outside administration. At the end of the day, I stood up for myself, made it clear to everyone in my department that I could not be bullied into silence, and that I was leaving with a PhD no matter what.

One caveat to this experience before recommending you go down the same path: I realize that my situation could have been so much worse had I not lucked out in a few ways. I was lucky that the graduate director + my other committee members were willing to support me and not abandon me, even if they couldn't bring themselves to confront their colleague about his behavior. I was lucky that my contact in HR was extremely nice and sympathetic to my situation, and I genuinely believe he made every effort to investigate my situation fairly. Unfortunately, having people like that on your side is not always the reality, and all too often, faculty/staff turn against graduate students who won't "stay in their place."

My suggestion would be to not take this professor's horrible treatment, stand up for yourself, and expose his inappropriate behavior. But do so very cautiously. In light of my own experiences that I shared, my question for you is, do you have allies? Other students who can and are willing to echo your complaints? There is power in numbers. Are there professors (including your secondary supervisor) that you can talk to? And keep in mind, there are (or should be) resources outside your department that you might consult, though I think I would only do so if you can't resolve things within your own department:

  1. the graduate ombudsperson: if your university has one, absolutely try talking to them. They're usually very senior, experienced professors, and they're meant to be available for confidential consultation. This is typically a very safe place to discuss your issues.

  2. Human Resources

  3. Dean's Office of your college

  4. Dean's Office of the graduate college

  5. the graduate student association might have resources

Ultimately, his behavior towards you - all of this telling you to not tell so-and-so about his actions and his insistence on controlling you and other students - is incredibly inappropriate and abusive, and none of you deserve to be treated that way. I hope that the dynamics in your department/university allow for a safe place for you to voice your complaints. There's nothing worse than silently suffering.


The worst part came when my second advisor proposed my a postdoc position. My main advisor became arrogant, telling me not to f**k up things (litterally), that he's the boss and that if I want to go on working in research I have to do it with him.

I don't understand this part? Why does your main advisor has so much control over where you would do a postdoc? The worst he can do for you is not to give you a LoR or worse, to give you a bad LoR. But I guess you don't need one from him.

Just complete your degree, and move to your secondary advisor's group. That's it. Or if you apply somewhere else, you can list only your secondary advisor.

At the end of the year he asked me not to tell the phd committee that I took part to that work, because it could damage the evaluation of the other student.

You should keep all evidences about your work on other PhD's student, including emails exchanged with that student or your advisor.

If I were you, I would not work for free any single day. You don't necessarily say NO. For example, if he says you need to help the other student before day/time. Just don't do it. How can he push you, via email? then you have some evidence then.

  • Hard evidence may make sense in a normal workplace when it comes to legal/formal battles. It is not clear whether OP has a chance here, we do not know the environment/HR/ombudspeople. The situation is abominable, but OP does a great job already (research!), so they have a good chance of getting out, if not unscathed, at least with limited damage if they play their cards carefully and close to the chest. Either taking the lucky pot shot and follow Ace's advice and go to HR or stay down until they can leave, but just refusing to work for free is not going to fly in the present constellation. Jun 10, 2018 at 0:24
  • Regardless of the route taken, I agree with the saving all evidence of your work, your exchanges, etc, including oral interactions (make a note of what was said, and date it). You might not need to make use of such documentation, but you never know.
    – Ace
    Jun 10, 2018 at 5:48
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    "I don't understand this part? Why does your main advisor has so much control over where you would do a postdoc?" Actually, he doesn't have that power. My explanation is that he's just trying to frighten me, because he doesn't want to share my papers with the other supervisor. In fact, our full professor is near retirement, and one of them is going to replace him.
    – philll
    Jun 10, 2018 at 9:28
  • "Just complete your degree, and move to your secondary advisor's group. That's it. Or if you apply somewhere else, you can list only your secondary advisor." They are in the same group, so the only way to get away from him is to apply somewhere else. As you suggest, the best choice can be list only my second advisor in my future applications. Thanks everyone for your help :)
    – philll
    Jun 10, 2018 at 9:29
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    Just complete your degree, and move to your secondary advisor's group. — I would recommend both of these steps, but in the opposite order.
    – JeffE
    Jul 4, 2018 at 17:28

My instinct, since you already figured out bad advisor. If it is early period of your PhD work, there is nothing wrong to find another advisor. Here in US academics, your future career almost depends on advisor whoever he is, it does not depend on you and your ability and your explanation why you had tought time working under him.Change your advisor!!!! if you haven't wasted your years.


You have a bad boss - a situation common to all walks of life including academia and industry. This is temporary, and you’ll get through it, but you must be proactive.

One option is to just change advisors formally to the one you like. If that’s not possible, you are best off assuming the worst and treating this like a contract. Have a clear, frank discussion of what is expected to attain PhD candidacy, and get in writing (or email for the record) all his/her requirements. Make sure those requirements align with the official requirements of your institution. If you do this clearly and check in regularly, it would be difficult to hold you back.

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    yes, but I wouldnt say BAD; he is abuser!!! which is kinda worst than bad
    – SSimon
    Jun 16, 2018 at 5:16
  • ‘Abuser’ is a strong term. If you mean that literally you have a pretty clear course of action.
    – HEITZ
    Jun 16, 2018 at 5:31
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    I agree. However, I have both seen academia and industry from the insight. Indeed bad bosses are every where, but in academia their proportional presence seems higher. This type of behavior is generally not accepted by organisations (personnel will walk away) and will become evident in employees satisfaction surveys. Second, managers are educated (obligatory) on management skills. I have not yet seen a professor being hold accountable for supervising skills.
    – user93911
    Jun 16, 2018 at 6:49
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    @Alice yes, that is why I suggest to be more strick in describing them
    – SSimon
    Jun 16, 2018 at 7:10

I understand you are a productive and successful PhD student. Therefore I can imagine that both supervisors have interest in you. You are of value.

Your main supervisor seems ‘to claim’ you as his PhD student. What I do not understand: is your main supervisor your professor? Who is financing your position? Because it may be possible to change supervisors. It is not easy but not impossible.

I suspect you are in a graduate school. In that case you will have yearly updated plannings, a yearly progress meeting, an opportunity to give feedback on supervision and to express your whishes. These yearly plannings and agreements should protect PhD students from additional tasks that slow down PhD research.

I read talking to you main supervisor doesn’t work. You could try to formalise such meeting (a formal progress meeting) with more people attending. If you main supervisor keeps avoiding agreements than I would consider carefully expressing your intention of changing supervision. As said, you are of value, to him and your institution. Both will not want to let you go.

Alternatively: just finish in two years and get out of that unhealthy atmosphere. However, two years are long.


The possibility of toxicity in your relationship with Ph.D. supervisor is not uncommon. My story is dated going back to the early 1970s in India when my supervisor published a paper without my name using 110% of my work. Later, I published a paper challenging his scientific thoughts and life continued. The difference is that I was doing it post Ph.D. The important lesson is to avoid any "toxic" elements in your relationship but the supervisor must respect you and your professionalism at all times.

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